FCJ-036 From Stabilitas Loci to Mobilitas Loci: Networked Mobility and the Transformation of Place

Rowan Wilken
University of Melbourne


Place is a much maligned notion within contemporary critical discourse. It is criticised for its lack of definitional precision; it is linked to strategies of exclusion; it is seen as marginal to modernist considerations of time and space; and with the emergence of cyberspace and virtual community, it is said to be left behind or reduced to the status of metaphor. Yet, place is a resilient notion and persists in the face of all these continuing challenges.

But what relevance, if any, does place have in the context of networked mobility? Does mobility render notions of place obsolete? Or does place persist? And if the latter, what happens to the common conception of place as a ‘proper, stable, and distinct location’ (Morse, 1999: 195) as a result of mobile practices?

This paper responds directly to these questions. It examines the notion of place in relation to networked mobility and mobile phone use, and the altered understandings of place that occur through these technologies and practices. Through this examination, two key arguments are developed. First, it is argued that place does indeed persist in and through networked mobility. A useful way of understanding this persistence is through the ‘domestication’ approach to understanding the development and uses of new technologies – as proposed by Silverstone and Haddon (1996) and extended by Morley (2003). Secondly, it is argued that networked mobility actually forces a renegotiation of place, and leads to significantly altered understandings of place and place-making. This is theorised as a shift from a traditional understanding of place as stable and fixed (stabilitas loci), to a reconceptualisation of place as formed in and through mobility (mobilitas loci). The paper concludes by sketching some of the potential, and possible wider implications, that this renewed understanding of place might have for future studies of networked mobility.

To begin this examination, what follows is a brief outline of some of the aforementioned definitional and other challenges facing the notion of place. This contextual material serves a twofold purpose. By sketching some of the widely varying understandings of place, the sense in which this term is understood in this paper will become clearer. Furthermore, understanding something of the history of place as a contested but resilient notion forms an important backdrop to, or point of departure for, examining the place of place in mobility debates.

Defining Place

Part of the difficulty in dealing with the notion of place has and continues to be its perceived lack of definitional clarity and precision. Place is often set in positive opposition to space, much as Ferdinand Tönnies (1963: 1957) positively opposes “community” (gemeinschaft) to “society” (gesellschaft). For example, Yi-Fu Tuan writes: ‘”Space” is more abstract than “place”. What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value’ (1977: 6). Beyond this already problematic demarcation little else about place is clear. Even in as compendious a study as Edward Casey’s (1993) Getting Back into Place, place is everywhere present but nowhere defined. Basic dictionary definitions do little to resolve general understanding of the term.[1] The problem with attempts at definition is that ‘place is not just the “where” of something; it is the location plus everything that occupies that location seen as an integrated and meaningful phenomenon’ (Relph, 1986; 1976: 3; see also Lukermann, 1964: 167-172). Thus, it is argued that ‘confusion about the meaning of the notion of place appears to result because it is not just a formal concept awaiting precise definition, but is also a naïve and variable expression of geographical experience’ (Relph, 1986; 1976: 4). Even so, despite its imprecision, this remains the most common and general understanding of the term. It is also how place is commonly understood for the specific discussions of networked mobility.

An even more expansive view is to suggest that difficulties of definition and experiential expression are in fact due to place being all-pervasive, structuring and shaping every facet of our lives and of our negotiation and experience of the lived world (Casey, 1993). In this respect, difficulties in grasping the notion of place are very much like the difficulties attending the category of the quotidian. As Maurice Blanchot says of the everyday, ‘whatever its other aspects, the everyday has this essential trait: it allows no hold. It escapes’ (1987: 14). Its pervasiveness renders it as platitude (13). But, as Blanchot adds, ‘this banality is also what is most important, if it brings us back to existence in its very spontaneity and as it is lived’ (13).

And so it is with place. The pervasiveness of place and its plurality of forms means that it allows no hold; but its ubiquity and diffuseness is also what makes place most important as it informs and shapes lived existence.[2] This is the precise conception of place that is developed here. Place is understood here as all-pervasive in the way that it informs and shapes everyday lived existence. In adopting this understanding of place in this examination of networked mobility, I take up the call to ‘explore place as a phenomenon of the geography of the lived-world of our everyday experiences’ (Relph, 1986; 1976: 3). Thus, in effect, this paper aims to deepen our understanding of place in relation to mobility. It should be stressed, however, that to acknowledge the persistence and ongoing relevance of place in relation to networked mobility is by no means to make an argument for geographical determinism;[3] nor is it an argument for place or geography over the virtual. Rather, the argument developed here in relation to mobility is for a renewed understanding of place, in which place is transformed by global telecommunications technologies and especially by technologies and practices of networked mobility.

In addition to the above, it is also important to recognise that while place is an imprecise term that can be described as a ‘naïve and variable expression of geographical experience’ (Relph, 1986; 1976: 4), understandings and applications of place are often developed in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. Grasping something of this complexity and contradiction is crucial, as it forms an important context or background to the later foreground focus on networked mobility and place.

Contextualising Place

Place has long been considered a problematical notion insofar as it is associated with strategies of exclusion and domination. For example, it has been noted that ‘the desire for some simple return to authentic local roots in “place” has been shown to be enmeshed in practices of cultural domination’ (Dovey, 2002: 45).[4] These are the precise sentiments of Jean-Luc Nancy. In his critique of community, for example, Nancy argues against an understanding of community as communion because this understanding suggests ‘fusion into a body’ – a monolithic form or identity – which denies difference and otherness and promotes exclusion (Nancy, 1991: xxxviii and passim).[5] He writes:

The community that becomes a single thing (body, mind, fatherland, Leader…) necessarily loses the in of being-in-common. […] (Nothing indicates more clearly what the logic of this being of togetherness can imply than the role of Gemeinschaft, of community, in Nazi ideology.) (1991: xxxix)

As is clear from this passage, place is central to his critique of community, and leaving it behind is considered critical if community is to be reconceived in non-restrictive terms. As one commentator notes:

What Nancy […] deftly disconnects, although he never says so explicitly, is the assumed immanence of communal identities to demarcated geographical spaces in the form of towns, lands or nations. In its most vulgar formation, this relation appears of course as the nationalist ideology of blood and soil. (Van Den Abbeele, 1997: 15)

Philosophical deliberations on community are by no means the only arena where place is “disconnected”. There is, for instance, what Casey terms the ‘modernist myth that place can be discounted and set aside for the sake of space or time’ (Casey, 1993: 10).[6]

For the most part, however, place manifests itself and is understood in complex and often contradictory ways, as is illustrated in Manuel Castells’ writing on globalisation. To cite one example, on the one hand, Castells writes:

Localities become disembodied from their cultural, historical, geographic meaning, and reintegrated into functional networks, or into image collages, inducing a space of flows that substitutes for the space of places. (Castells, 1996: 375)[7]

On the other hand, at a later point Castells makes the following qualification to his overall argument regarding “networked society”:

The space of flows does not permeate down to the whole realm of human experience in the network society. […] The overwhelming majority of people, in advanced and traditional societies alike, live in places, and so they perceive their space as place-based. A place is a locale whose form, function and meaning are self-contained within the boundaries of physical contiguity. (423)

Such contradiction and ambiguity is by no means isolated, and it is therefore perhaps not surprising that the term “globalisation” itself has become something of a conduit or pivot for the (re)consideration of global/local tensions (see Crane, Kawashima, and Kawasaki, 2002; Held and McGrew, 2002; Jameson and Miyoshi, 1998; Scholte, 2000; Waters, 1995). These debates argue, among other things, that ‘the new industrial system is neither global nor local but “a new articulation of global and local dynamics”‘ (Amin and Robins cited in Castells, 1996: 392).

It is in this context that “glocalisation” has emerged as an important (albeit equally contested) notion for capturing global-local tensions. For at least one critic, this notion provides:

[A] conceptually viable and empirically defensible theoretical framework [… which] recognizes and conceptualizes the technological developments, linguistic creolization, cultural hybridization, social decentralization, and political fragmentation that characterize contemporary international relations. (Kraidy, 2001: 39)

Others are less convinced. For example, Roland Robertson suggests that replacing globalisation with glocalisation is unnecessary. He maintains that the original notion is sufficiently nuanced.

Globalization – in the broadest sense, the compression of the world – has involved and increasingly involves the creation and the incorporation of locality, processes which themselves largely shape, in turn, the compression of the world as a whole. (Robertson, 1995: 40)

Terminological differences aside, both critics agree that to engage with globalisation and the “space of flows” inevitably requires an ongoing concern for singularities and particularities of place and locality. What this means in simple terms is that place, while in many respects a troublesome and contested term, is nonetheless indispensable. As Edward Casey notes, we require places in which to exist: ‘we are immersed in [place] and could not do without it’ (1997: ix).[8]

The preceding discussion provides a valuable context for situating discussions of place and mobile technologies. This is for two reasons.

First, this is because questions of mobility and local place are situated firmly within globalisation debates and address shared concerns. As Larissa Hjorth writes, ‘The dynamic interaction between globalisation and practices of locality is nowhere more apparent than in debates surrounding mobile telephony and its dissemination and appropriation at the level of the local’ (2005: 208).

Secondly, this context provides a good example of how place, while imprecise in definition, is often decidedly more complex in understanding and application. This is also the case with networked mobility. Place is an important notion in studies of networked mobility, albeit one which is employed in rather general terms as a vague expression of geographical experience. Although, how place is understood through and shaped by networked mobility can be seen to be both complex and at times contradictory. The following discussion of place and networked mobility teases out something of this complexity and contradiction.

Networked Mobility and Place

It could be argued that mobility in general and networked mobility in particular – bearing in mind that it is increasingly difficult to differentiate the two – both appear, at one level, to contribute to a dislocation of place, or what Morley refers to as the “death” of geography (2003: 439). Mobility in every form unsettles what is considered to be fundamental to conventional understandings of place: its very stability. As the Norwegian architectural critic Christian Norberg-Schulz writes, ‘human identity presupposes the identity of place, and that stabilitas loci therefore is a basic human need’ (1980: 180). Arguably, stabilitas loci or the stability of place is even more directly unsettled by networked mobility: ‘The mobile phone is often understood (and promoted) as a device for connecting us to those who are far away, thus overcoming distance – and perhaps geography itself’ (Morley, 2003: 452). In other words, mobile phones are said to operate ‘independent of place’ (Wellman, 2001: 19). And where they are not exactly independent of place they appear immune to place, serving to insulate their ‘users from the geographical place that they are actually in’ by creating, as Morley puts it, a kind of ‘psychic cocoon’ (451) around each user, much like a Walkman or an iPod does.[9] In light of these developments, it has been argued,

[That] the importance of place as a communication site will diminish even more, and the person – not the place, household or group – will become even more of an autonomous communication node. (Wellman, 2001: 19)

The result, it is claimed, is ‘the rise of networked individualism’ (29): the shift from ‘place-to-place’ communication to ‘person-to-person’ communication; or, from ‘inter-household networks to interpersonal networks’ (29-30).

But networked mobility enjoys a far more ambiguous relationship with place than is perhaps suggested by the above formulation. This is for several reasons. To begin with, ‘despite all the talk of “postmodern nomadology” […] most people’s actual experience of geographical mobility’ is still very limited (Morley, 2003: 437). That is to say, ‘global cultural forms still have to be made sense of within the context of what, for many people, are still very local forms of life’ (437). In other words, the global is filtered through the local and, increasingly, through local mobility.[10]

For example, one curiosity about mobile phone use is the “domesticity” that characterises much of the conversation that takes place via these devices. As has been remarked, ‘What the mobile phone does is to fill the space of the public sphere with the chatter of the hearth, allowing us to take our homes with us, just as a tortoise stays in its shell wherever it travels (Morley, 2003: 452-453).[11] This is a point that will be returned to later.

There are also counter-intuitive uses of the mobile phone, such as when this technology does not so much transcend distance as ‘establish parallel communications networks in the same space’ (Morley, 2003: 451). For example, studies of mobile phone use regularly report that, while it is not always considered acceptable practice, these devices are commonly used in same space settings, such as a school classroom (Ito, 2003b, 2003c; Yoon, 2003).[12]

Also contrary to the claim that networked mobility overcomes geography, is the prevalence of the question, ‘Where are you?’, by which many mobile phone conversations begin (Morley, 2003: 440).

It is in this sense that mobile telephony responds to Georges Perec’s lament that ‘we always need to know what time it is […] but we never ask ourselves where we are’ (1999; 1997: 83). Perec’s point, of course, is that even when we provide an answer – ‘we are at home, at our office, in the Métro, in the street’ (1999; 1997: 83) – we only really ‘think we know’, and the answer betrays how very little we in fact do know about place, because the “where” of “somewhere” is tied up with the seemingly inscrutable workings of the everyday. However, the central argument of this paper is that networked mobility prompts renewed consideration of the “where” of everyday places by forcing us to reflect on our apprehension and comprehension of them in transit. More than this, networked mobility leads to transformed understandings of place.

These transformations are evident in recent empirical studies of mobile phone use, which provide a clear indication of how place is experienced through and transformed by networked mobility.

In a study of Norwegian mobile phone use, for example, Ling and Haddon (2001) point to the key role the mobile phone plays in the “micro-coordination” of everyday activities and, in particular, of basic daily travel arrangements. ‘The development of mobile telephony,’ they write, ‘”softens time” in that one does not necessarily need to agree upon an absolute point in time but rather can, to some degree negotiate, or micro-coordinate, over where and when to meet’ (2001: 2).

The “softening of time” through “micro-coordination” is also strongly evident in studies of Japanese youth and mobile phone use (Ito, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c). These studies reveal that networked mobility has transformed the way that meetings are arranged in urban space. ‘In the past, landmarks and times were the points that coordinated action and convergence in urban space. People would decide on a particular place and time to meet, and converge at that time and place’ (Ito, 2003c: 9). Now, however, it is more likely that an initial and rather loose arrangement is agreed upon, and ‘as the meeting time nears, contact via messaging and voice becomes more concentrated, eventually culminating in face-to-face contact’ (Ito, 2003c: 9). It is also common for mobile communication to continue even after physical co-presence has been achieved in the same urban space (Ito, 2003a). This elaborate series of micro-coordinations reveals a complex set of interactions and negotiations between place, physical co-presence and “virtual” presence. One result, it is suggested, is that ‘distant others are always socially co-present, and place – where you locate yourself – has become a hybrid relation between physical and wirelessly co-present context’ (Ito, 2003a). This would appear to complicate the idea of a shift from place-to-place and person-to-person communication.

Complementing these findings is Yoon’s (2003) study of mobile phone use by South Korean youth. This study reveals other counter-intuitive uses of mobile technology that serve to further reinforce rather than diminish the importance of place. This is revealed through the practice of “immobiling”. Yoon develops this term to describe certain strategies by which young mobile phones users “immobilize” their mobile phones in response to perceived sensitivities between peers concerning place, time, etiquette, and content (Yoon, 2003: 334ff). Turning off the phone also constitutes an important way of diminishing parental control by preventing parents from making contact via text or voice message. In both cases, “immobiling” serves as a key means by which to develop ‘local sociality’ (329) and, in turn, ‘retraditionalize the global’ (340).

What is interesting about these studies and their findings is that they appear to validate Boden and Molotch’s (1994) claim that we are influenced by an ongoing ‘compulsion of proximity’, and that technologies of distance do nothing to obviate the need for regular co-presence through face-to-face encounter. In fact, it has also been suggested that ‘those who make the most phone calls are also those who interact with the largest number of people face to face’ (Lévy, 1998: 32).

What also emerges from these studies is that place – especially local place – is central to the practice and understanding of networked mobility. But how place is experienced through networked mobility is quite unique. It is a heavily mediated engagement, where place is experienced via a complex filtering or imbrication of the actual with the virtual. This is a key point, and will be expanded later at length.

Mobile Privatization and the Domestication of Technology

To further appreciate the continuing importance of place to networked mobility, it is also valuable to consider ‘how “mobile” traditions incorporate new technologies as they develop’ (Morley, 2003: 443). The “domestication” model, as developed by Roger Silverstone and Leslie Haddon (1996) and extended by David Morley (2003), offers a useful frame for understanding this process.

Silverstone and Haddon develop the “domestication” approach as a way of making sense of the ‘intimate relations’ that characterise the ‘production and consumption of a new media and information technology’ (1996: 54). Their interest in the domestic emerges from a belief that it is difficult to think of domesticity without making reference to the increasing presence of media and information-communication technologies in the domestic home. But, they add, the reverse is also true: ‘No account of technological innovation can ignore the particularity of that domesticity and the processes by which it is sustained’ (61). Thus, as Silverstone and Haddon understand it, domestication takes on a double sense. It refers to the home as a techno-social site for the consumption of new technologies, as well as constituting a particular method or model for making sense of the processes by which these new technologies are consumed and “domesticated” (or naturalised) within and beyond this site. According to the second of these two understandings of this notion, they write:

Domestication is a more or less continuous process in which technologies and services are consumed […] and, through the process of consumption, are given meaning and significance. (67)

This functions according to a double process, in which the domestication of new technologies involves a ‘taming of the wild and a cultivation of the tame’. New technologies (such as computers, DVD players, and mobile phones) are considered exciting but also potentially threatening and in need of being ‘brought […] under control by and on behalf of domestic users’ (60). Yet, as soon as they are “domesticated” through ownership and appropriation into the culture, flows and routine of family, household and everyday life, these technologies are cultivated. That is to say, as they become familiar, or as they are placed alongside or replace existing technologies, the uses of these technologies change and are redefined (60 & 68).[13]

This understanding of technological domestication owes a debt to the earlier work of Raymond Williams, and especially his idea of “mobile privatisation” (1992; 1974: 20). Williams developed this concept as a way of encapsulating a complex series of technological developments, which he saw as characterised by ‘two apparently paradoxical yet deeply connected tendencies of modern urban industrial living: on the one hand mobility, on the other hand the more apparently self-sufficient family home’ (20).

In their reworking of his concept, Silverstone and Haddon focus on the second of the two tendencies that Williams describes, giving detailed consideration to the complex processes by which technological developments are integrated into and “domesticated” or “naturalised” within the domestic environment.

Nevertheless, the strength of the domestication model lies in its wider application. The authors’ investigation of new technologies and how they are incorporated into the patterns of everyday life is important in that it extends the notion of domestication beyond the confines of the traditional domestic home. This has two benefits.

First, it intersects with, or allows parallels to be drawn between, wider (non-technologically mediated) considerations of mobility and the ongoing importance of the domestic. For example, in commenting on the defamiliarising effects of telecommunications technologies and the forces of globalisation, Derrida observes that they lead to a growing and renewed desire for the “home” – in both its domestic sense and in a more threatening national sense:

The global and the dominant effect of television, the telephone, the fax machine, satellites, the accelerated circulation of images, discourse, etc., is that the here-and-now becomes uncertain, without guarantee: anchoredness, rootedness, the at-home [le chez-soi] are radically contested. Dislodged. This is nothing new. It has always been this way. The at-home has always been tormented by the other, the guest, by the threat of expropriation. It is constituted only in this threat. But today, we are witnessing such a radical expropriation, deterritorialization, delocalization, dissociation of the political and the local, of the national, of the nation-state and the local, that the response, or rather the reaction, becomes: “I want to be at home, I want finally to be at home, with my own, close to my friends and family.” […] The more powerful and violent the technological expropriation, the delocalization, the more powerful, naturally, the recourse to the at-home, the return toward home. (Derrida, 2002: 79-80)

This formulation of the “at-home” and the “return toward home”, as well as more general understandings of the “home” and the “domestic”, are both significant in understanding the complexities of the interactions between networked mobility and place. The importance of addressing in tandem both macro and micro forms of mobility and the domestic in future studies of networked mobility is a point that will be touched on at the end of this paper.

The second benefit of a more expansive understanding of the processes of technological innovation and consumption is that domestication becomes an elastic concept with wide application for understanding various forms of technological innovation and use. This includes how we might understand networked mobility and its uses.

For instance, in advancing how new technologies are domesticated, Silverstone and Haddon argue that the functions of certain technologies may, when incorporated in the home or household, be ‘somewhat different from those intended by designers or advertisers’ (1996: 64). They may also change over time (64). They also note that households are ‘conventionally and habitually quite adept at a kind of seamless shifting from one technological input and resource to another as well as being adept at their simultaneous use’ (66). Both observations are supported by empirical research into mobile phone use. Unintended use can be observed in the practices of “immobiling” observed by Yoon (2003). Shifting between and simultaneous use of various technological resources is evident in the widespread practice of incorporating both fixed or landline and mobile phone connections in the routines of everyday life (Ling and Haddon, 2001; Ito, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c; Yoon, 2003).

It is this wider context of the practice of everyday life that also has led to the “expansion” of the domestic home as a site. Silverstone and Haddon make this point in passing near the end of their study. They observe,

Household boundaries are extended […] by the increasing mobilization and personalization of communication and information technologies, as walkmen and mobile phones offer a new kind of nomadic access and media participation, constant availability and increasing dispersal of information consumption. (69-70)

This observation, in effect, forms the point of departure for David Morley’s (2003) examination of the uses and impacts of networked mobility. Drawing on Silverstone and Haddon’s model of domestication, Morley takes up an issue that is remarked on, but is otherwise left undeveloped by Silverstone and Haddon. This is a contradictory dynamic or tension between processes of technological domestication which occur within the family home, and other practices of everyday life by which mobile phone use “transports” or “dislocates” domesticity.

The key contribution of Morley’s work is that it takes Silverstone and Haddon’s “domestication” model and applies it to networked mobility and mobile phone use, making explicit the connection that Williams drew between domestication and mobility. However, in developing this link, Morley inverts Williams’ earlier formulation. Raymond Williams posits the idea of “mobile privatization” – an idea which arguably reaches its apotheosis with the relatively recent advent of home theatres and the digitalised “smart house”. Morley, on the other hand, inverts this formulation by considering contemporary mobile phone use as a form of “privatized mobility” (Morley, 2003: 437 ff). As such, networked mobility further extends household boundaries by ‘dislocat[ing] the idea of home, enabling its user, in the words of the Orange advertising campaign in the UK, to ‘”take your network with you, wherever you go”‘ (in Morley, 2003: 451). In so doing, networked mobility reinforces the idea of home (and with it, the appeal to what Derrida terms the “at-home”). These ties to the domestic are further reinforced by the provision included within many mobile network billing plans for the user to have reduced rates (or free calls) between a “home” landline and a mobile phone.

Mobile Home: the Dislocation of Domesticity

Complementing the domestication approach to “historicising” the ongoing relevance of place and home to networked mobility is the equally illuminating context of 1960s “experimental architecture”. For example, in Peter Cook’s study, Experimental Architecture (1970), we find the same ingredients examined by Silverstone and Haddon and also by Morley: domesticity, technology, mobility and place.

In Cook’s survey, a key point of departure is, as he describes it, the ‘turn to eclecticism’ in the architecture of the 1960s:

The word [eclecticism] had derogatory implications only a decade ago (architecture was to be pure and discriminating), but it now implies a positive openness and absorption of anything that might be useful to a project. (1970: 14)

This “bricoleur” approach to design is most strongly felt in the rapid uptake at this time of new buildings materials (due to advances in materials manufacturing technologies) and engagement with and “absorption” of telecommunications and media technologies (due in large part to the influence of the writings of Marshall McLuhan). The ‘opportunity of the material’ (Cook, 1970: 55ff) and the turn ‘towards technology as a great force for a new architecture’ (30) dovetail in two interconnected concerns that are central to Cook’s study: the first is the potential of telecommunications technologies to transform the domestic house; the second is an abiding interest in mobility (and neo-nomadism).

To address the first of these interconnected concerns, a key reason for such a strong renewal of interest in the function and operation of the house in 1960s experimental architecture, beyond developments in materials mass production, is found in Cook’s realisation (after McLuhan) that ‘communication is becoming as powerful as tactile or representational environment’ (1970: 125). And in a statement that arguably foretells the soon-to-be-reality of computer-mediated networked communications, Cook writes, ‘we shall reach a point quite soon where real time and imagined dimension can be made to interact’ (126).

Commensurate with this realisation is an acknowledgment of the effect of communication on the fabric of the traditional family unit (128). As the English architect Cedric Price writes, ‘the house is no longer acceptable as a pre-set ordering mechanism for family life’ (1984: 48). Price’s concern is in questioning the taken-for-granted function of the house in light of the aforementioned developments in mass media technologies. The domestic house becomes in Price’s terms ‘a 24-hour economic living toy’ (48) – a kind of miniature domestic “fun palace”. Price’s conception of a technologised and functionally open house of experimentation did find some form of architectural expression some time later in the House of the Century (1973) project by the Ant Farm collective of U.S. architects and media artists. This humorous experiment in future living – described as a ‘ferro-cement domicile with futuro-phallic features’ (Seid, 2004; 25) – was constructed beside Mojo Lake, Angleton, Texas, and featured an array of electronics devices and equipment for the media-savvy occupant. Price’s domestic vision of the house as a “24-hour-economic living toy” and Ant Farm’s attempt to realise such a vision both constitute early instances of the “electronic house” and of what Scott McQuire (2003: 103) describes as the ‘repositioning of the home as an interactive media centre’ – a key development in the continuing “domestication of technology”.

The second of the two interconnected realisations in Cook’s study concerns the kinds of techno-social transformations described earlier in this paper. That is, global networked telecommunications technologies, coupled with burgeoning global travel and interconnected financial markets, not only increase the sense of an increasingly shrinking planet (McLuhan’s “global village”), but also animate a shift from the traditional conception of a stabilitas loci towards a culture of mobility (mobilitas loci) (see Urry, 2000, 2002). Or as Cook puts it: ‘the future environment will be where you (yourself) may find it’ (1970: 131). Implicit in Cook’s understanding and in much of the experimental work gathered in his survey, with its emphasis on technology and mobility, is the belief that “place” is antithetical to technology, and vice versa. Yet, as Cook readily admits, what is being transported in these experiments with technologies of mass fabrication and mobility is, precisely, the house:

There have been projects for the all-metal house, the all-plastic house, the all-paper house, the all-wooden house, the all-pneumatic house, the all-glass house, the house as a total dome, the house as a total box, the house as a total capsule. These have a singularity of motive which takes them back to the traditional process in the development of architecture. (Cook, 1970: 55 & 57)

Thus, what was motivated – albeit implicitly – by a desire to dislocate place from architecture and technology results, one might say, in the dislocation of architecture in place/s. As such, I would argue, this experimental architecture represents an important – if somewhat literal – precursory stage to the more recent transformations which Silverstone and Haddon describe as the “extension” of household boundaries through ‘increasing mobilization and personalization of communication and information technologies’, such as mobile phones (1996: 69), and which Morley theorises as the ‘dislocation of domesticity’ (2003).

The further import of these experimental investigations into mobile structures lies in the fact that they can also be seen as part-and-parcel of a ‘basic dialogue between movement, structure, and the possible transfer of events and their location within the structure’ (Cook, 1970: 101). ‘The sift of these three conservations,’ Cook writes, ‘can be passed across most experimental projects’ (101). Simply put, this interest in mobility is not just for mobility’s sake. As Cook says of Archigram’s (1968) Ideas Circus project, but which might be taken as a more general summary of the motivations behind these architectural experiments in mobility, there is an underlying consideration of ‘questions of place, facility, equipment and the idiosyncrasies of the users’ running throughout most of these projects (1970: 122).

From Stabilitas Loci to Mobilitas Loci: Networked Mobility and the Renegotiation of Place

And so it is with networked mobility. These very issues – of place, facility, equipment, and the idiosyncrasies of use – are also at stake in networked mobility’s engagement with and renegotiation of place. This reiterates what is a key point: place persists and does not remain unchanged by these developments. That is to say, networked mobility in general and mobile phone use in particular, lead to altered or transformed understandings of place and place-making which warrant consideration here.

To illustrate this point, and to begin to tease out how understandings of place are transformed by networked mobility, it is valuable to return momentarily to Ant Farm. In addition to their many dalliances with portable inflatable structures (Maniaque, 2004), Ant Farm also shared a deep interest in media technologies and associated issues of media representation.[14] They explore this interest in a number of projects (including the aforementioned House of the Century), but especially in their Media Van (1971): an electronically equipped customised 1971 Chevrolet van in which the artists toured. As Ant Farm recorded at the time, the impetus for Media Van was to ‘realize our own brand of nomadism’: ‘The media van idea was one of total documentation, so that while trucking you have the capability to record via videotape, photographs, film, and mental notes what’s going on around you’ (Lord, Michels, Schreier, 2004: 100). In short, Media Van utilise networked telecommunications technologies (including TV, audio, etc.) to document as thoroughly as possible the shifting and fleeting ambiences of place as they were experienced through mobility. Such a deliberate artistic exercise in spatial and “placial” documentation has rapidly become largely routine practice for many users of networked telecommunications technologies, especially those with camera phones. Indeed, so commonplace has this process of documentation become that it has given rise to the phenomenon of “life-caching”: the use of digital cameras and picture phones and software such as Lifeblog to create digital diaries, scrapbooks and photo albums which serve as mnemonic devices for sifting through and recollecting daily experiences.[15]

The extent to which place is transformed by mobility can be further understood by considering Marc Augé’s account of “non-places”. According to Augé, the contemporary cultural landscape of globalisation is characterised by an overabundance of information and a growing tangle of interdependencies which leads to the creation of an ‘excess of space correlative with the shrinking of the planet’ (Augé, 1995). Augé coins the term “non-places” to describe this expanding excess. “Non-places” are those interstitial zones where we spend an ever-increasing proportion of our lives: in supermarkets, airports, hotels, cars, on motorways, and in front of ATMs, TVs and computers. For Augé, such “non-places” are the real measure of our time. The extent of which can be quantified, Augé writes,

By totalling all the air, rail and motorway routes, the mobile cabins called “means of transport” (aircraft, trains and road vehicles), the airports and railway stations, hotel chains, leisure parks, large retail outlets, and finally the complex skein of cable and wireless networks that mobilize extraterrestrial space for the purposes of a communication so peculiar that it often puts the individual in contact only with another image of himself. (Augé, 1995: 79)

In short, ‘what is new in contemporary life are not these institutions of mobile privitization per se but the interpenetration of layer upon layer of built environment and representation, the formative and derivative, the imaginary and mundane’ (Morse, 1990: 210). Elsewhere this same process has been described as the overlaying of a “third nature” of information flows on the “second nature” of cities, harbours, industry, and so forth, creating an ‘information landscape which almost entirely covers the old territories’ (Wark, 1994: 120).

In response to this seemingly overwhelming “spatial excess”, Augé makes two modest yet instructive and interconnected suggestions.

The first is that such spatial relearning involves thinking about ‘space as frequentation of places rather than a place’ (85). As Augé argues, ‘It is no longer possible for a social analysis to dispense with individuals, nor for an analysis of individuals to ignore the spaces through which they are in transit’ (120).

The second is that we have to ‘relearn how to think about space’ (1995: 36). Implicit in the catalogue of “non-places” that Augé furnishes is the suggestion that this process of relearning requires an understanding of space as thoroughly technologised (or at least this understanding needs to be made explicit). Moreover, everyday engagement with these spaces, as the example of life caching illustrates, involves the ‘copresence of multiple worlds in different modes’: the screen and the geography over which individuals travel (Morse, 1990: 206). The ‘copresence of multiple worlds’, Morse argues, presents a paradox for mobile experiences of place. On the one hand, these multiple mediations are characterised by a kind of ‘detached involvement’ (203), a ‘dreamlike displacement or separation from [one’s] surroundings’ (197). On the other hand, this multiple-mode of engagement holds promise. Morse writes, ‘Th[e] task of reintegrating a social world of separated, dislocated realms is accomplished by means of an internal dualism, of passage amid the segmentation of glass, screens, and thresholds’ (200).

Both sets of observations and considerations point to a significant shift in our understanding of place. To recast Norberg-Schulz’ formulation, it would seem a shift is being initiated from the notion of stabilitas loci or “stable place” to what I have been terming mobilitas loci: the difference between place experienced as stable (if not fixed), to multiple places experienced in and through mobility. This shift, I would suggest, fills out Morley’s understanding of the “dislocation of domesticity”.

To conceive of place in this way is to come almost full circle in our understanding of how place is experienced: from the “mobile gaze” of the nineteenth-century, via what Anne Friedberg terms the “virtual mobile gaze” of late-twentieth century postmodernism (1993), to what might be understood as a “re-mobilised (virtual) gaze” with the advent of mobile (particularly image-enabled) telephonic technologies.

Networked mobility does prompt a renegotiation of place, much like strolling (flânerie) and the “technologised” spaces of the grand arcades did in the nineteenth century. With networked mobility, “placial” renegotiation takes a number of forms: from individual (usually pedestrian) navigation of (largely localised) place/s, to broader perceptual considerations concerning the navigation of place via a re-mobilised, distracted (virtual) gaze, and the documentation of place through mobile phone cameras and the related practice of “life caching”. Thus, rather than “liberate” us from place, as Wellman would have us believe, these technologies arguably refocus the individual on the fluctuating and fleeting experiences of place/s and their impact on the fabric of everyday life.

Conclusion: Re. Territorialisation

Mobilitas loci – the renegotiation of place via networked mobility, and the interrogation of ‘questions of place, facility, equipment and the idiosyncrasies of the users’ that this renegotiation prompts – generates manifold questions concerning the apprehension and examination of place through networked mobility. For example, the increasingly mediated nature of our engagement with place – especially via mobile telephony – would seem to suggest the need for some kind of hybrid approach to visual perception (at very least) which bridges established understandings of landscape structure and perception, such as by Higuchi (1983), with more recent analyses drawn from VR, cinema studies, interface design, and other sources. Morse’s notion of the ‘copresence of multiple worlds in different modes’ experienced as an ‘ontology of everyday distraction’ is a productive step in this direction.[16] Indeed, what Morse’s work highlights is the very impossibility of maintaining an uncomplicated distinction between place in a strict or “pure” geographical sense and mediated experience (and construction) of it.

For this very reason it is valuable to recall Derrida’s engagement with the whole problematic of actuality and what he sees as its ‘two traits’: ‘artifactuality’ and ‘actuvirtuality’ (Derrida, 2002: 3ff). Actuality, Derrida writes, ‘is not given but actively produced, sifted, invested, performatively interpreted by numerous apparatuses which are factitious or artificial, hierarchizing and selective […]’ (2002: 3). Derrida terms this ‘artifactuality’. The second trait of actuality, is captured in Derrida’s insistence ‘on a concept of virtuality (virtual image, virtual space, and so virtual event) that can doubtless no longer be opposed, in perfect philosophical serenity, to actual reality in the way that philosophers used to distinguish between power and act, dynamis and energeia‘, and so forth (2002: 6). Derrida coins the term ‘actuvirtuality’ to describe this second trait. The import of this insistence on the artifactuality/actuvirtuality of teletechnological experience is, as Niall Lucy explains,

[…] to show that what counts as actuality in the present can no longer be confined to the ontological opposition of the actual and the virtual, despite the ongoing necessity of this opposition to every form of politics (Lucy, 2004: 4).

Derrida’s resistance to the traditional ontological opposition of the actual and the virtual – and of the actual as the ‘undeconstructible opposite of artifice and the artefact’ (Lucy, 2004: 4) – is pertinent to many areas of critical concern, including the present interest in the experience and construction of place through networked mobility. It is also what connects this present concern for the (largely localised) impact of networked mobility on place with broader geopolitical concerns. For, as Niall Lucy suggests, not only does artifactuality and actuvirtuality necessitate a responsibility to analyse media (as Derrida argues it does), it is also a responsibility that is open to the future and open to the other. Lucy writes:

Such an understanding of the actual as what is always “actively produced” and “performatively interpreted” is not an excuse for disengaging from public life or for affecting a disinterest in real-historical events. If the condition of actuality is that it must be made, then it must be able to be made differently […]. That is why it’s possible to make another artefact of the other – as the arrivant, the absolute stranger (Lucy, 2004: 6).

This might seem to represent a significant departure from the line of consideration of networked mobility and place that has hitherto preoccupied this paper. But it does not. For, as Morley advises, any analysis such as the present one ‘must be sensitive both to [what Foucault terms] the “grand strategies of geopolitics” and the “little tactics of the habitat”‘, where the ‘interlinked processes of globalisation and domestication […] bring together micro and macro issues’ (Morley, 2003: 437). This brings me back, in conclusion, to Derrida’s account of the return toward home, the “at-home”, in both its benign domestic sense and more troubling nationalistic sense. It is the former sense which would seem to drive present interest in and uptake of mobile telephony technologies. As Morley puts it, these technologies should be seen ‘as “imperfect instruments, by which people try […] to maintain some sense of security and location” amidst a culture of flow and deterritorialization’ (2004: 453). The persistence of place in the face of networked mobility ‘seems to suggest a continuing desire to reterritorialize the uncertainty of location inherent in online worlds’ (440). But it is worth remembering that this is not unconnected from the somewhat darker nationalistic desire for the “at-home”, which, as Derrida explains, is motived (among other reasons) by the perceived threat that is posed by the “mobility” of the immigrant “other”. Future research in this area would do well to remember this and remain sensitive to both the micro-scale of (largely localised) experiences of networked mobility (Urry, 2002) and the macro-scale of global geopolitical transformations (Urry, 2000), the micro-politics of mobile, technologically equipped bodies in transit through place/s, and the macro-scale geopolitics of (voluntary and forced) migration and displacement.

Author’s Biography

Rowan Wilken is a Melbourne-based writer and researcher, and is currently completing his PhD at the University of Melbourne. His thesis examines the intersections and interactions of (virtual) community, place, and teletechnologies. Other research interests include: the convergence of media, cultural and architectural theory; aesthetics; and the practice and poetics of everyday life. He has published in Meanjin, MESH, RealTime, and UTS Review, and is a co-author of Australian Modern: the Architecture of Stephenson & Turner (Miegunyah Press, 2004).


I would like to thank Karen Olsen and two anonymous referees for their constructive and insightful comments.


[1] For instance, The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary offers thirteen variations, which range from broad references to space and its occupation, to the differentiation of types or “sub-categories” of geographical space and the occupation of these spaces (including, in order of increasing expansion: a residence or dwelling; a group of houses in a town; a town square; a village, a town, a city; an area or region) (Hughes, Michell, Ramson, 1992: 863). For more detailed historical background to the notion of place – a term which can be traced back at least to early Greek philosophy – see Casey (1993 and 1997).

[2] And this is precisely why Casey offers no concise definition of place. His suggestion seems to be that we reach an understanding of place only by taking a circuitous route: by studying ‘the perplexing phenomenon of displacement, rampant throughout human history and especially evident at the present historical moment, only in relation to an abiding implacement’ (Casey, 1993: xiv).

[3] Such as seems to be the case in the rhetoric of the Congress of the New Urbanism, for example. For a useful introduction to the aims, projects and criticisms of the architectural and planning phenomenon known as the Congress of the New Urbanism, see Bressi (2002). For a reading of the New Urbanism’s interest in the renewal of community through place as a form of “geographical determinism”, see Harvey (1997).

[4] For a more detailed discussion of the difficult politics of place, see Michael Keith and Steve Pile (1996).

[5] Derrida concurs with Nancy. He, too, repudiates the word community because its etymology links it to violence and exclusion (see Derrida, 1997: 13).

[6] For a fuller discussion of this argument concerning the supremacy of space over place, see Casey (1997: 131-193).

[7] Castells defines the “space of places” as ‘the historically rooted spatial organization of our common experience’ (1996: 378). By way of contrast, he defines the “space of flows” as a series of transformations where ‘society is constructed around flows: flows of capital, flows of information, flows of technology, flows of organizational interaction, flows of images, sounds and symbols. Flows are not just one element of the social organization: they are the expression of processes dominating our economic, political, and symbolic life’ (1996: 412; original emphasis). Or as Derrida puts it, ‘the border is no longer the border, images are coming and going through customs, the link between the political and the local, the topopolitical, is as it were dislocated‘ (2002: 57; emphasis in original).

[8] As one critic has remarked: ‘”Place” and “place-making” in the radically imploded space of the global civilisation of the early twenty-first century remains some of the most problematical but compelling human concerns within the continuing experience of modernity’ (Scriver, 2002: 4).

[9] The risks of this “cocooning” are apparent in the recently reported deaths of at least two pedestrians in Australia who were oblivious to the cars which hit them due to the music pumping through their headphones.

[10] As one critic puts it, ‘cellphones and their connectivity in the world at large are the first high-tech acknowledgment of realspace in the age of cyberspace [with “realspace” taken here to mean geography or place]. Where the choice was once communication, indoors, away from the physical world, or movement and transportation out in the world with no communication, cellphones open up a third possibility – the world outdoors with full communication (Levinson, 2003: 5).

[11] Morley draws here on Yi-Fu Tuan’s distinction ‘between “conversations” (substantive talk about events and issues: a discourse of the public realm) and “chatter” (the exchange of gossip principally designed to maintain solidarity between those involved in the exchange: what Tuan calls a “discourse of the hearth”)’ (2003: 452).

[12] To cite a filmic example, these findings bring to mind Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), where Cher (Alicia Silverstone) and her friends communicate via mobile phone in the same high school corridor space.

[13] This concern for both medium and message – the technologies themselves and the uses to which these technologies are put – is, they argue, the point of difference which distinguishes the domestication model from other, broadly “technological determinist” understandings of how new media rework or “remediate” old media.

[14] In an Australian context, Ant Farm are perhaps best remembered for their 1976 tour, which included a series of lectures in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane; a performance on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, CARmen … the auto opera, featuring around fifteen cars conducted by an artist kangaroo; a further performance at the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Ned Telly and the Golden Spanner, with a Ned Kelly look-alike wearing a TV helmet and using a giant golden spanner to unbolt the Harbour Bridge; and, the collective’s aborted Dolphin Embassy project which was to be constructed in Surfers Paradise, Queensland (see Lewallen, 2004: 80-83).

[15] For a journalistic account of the emergent phenomenon of “life-caching”, see Schofield (2004).

[16] In addition to televisual considerations, there is also an argument for returning to the history of experimental urban critique and exploration, especially as practiced by the likes of Fluxus and the Situationists, in order to better understand what is at stake phenomenologically in contemporary, networked mobility. Elsewhere I have attempted to initiate such considerations. See Wilken (2000).


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